In 2000, there was a controversy—which, has been raised again periodically over the course of the last twenty years—about Staffordshire University offering a degree in David Beckham Studies: ostensibly the ultimate Mickey Mouse course, the most ridiculous possible concession of our once-proud higher education sector to the worship of celebrity. The fact that David Beckham just came up as part of a 12-week module on the sociology of sport, focusing critically on the concept of sporting celebrity, by now hardly matters: David Beckham Studies was the headline, and David Beckham Studies is what has been remembered.
Last week, I went one step further than David Beckham Studies. I decided to make it possible for British university students to get a degree in Dril. Well, OK, Dril wasn’t actually the main focus, even of one particular class. I’m currently teaching a first-year module titled the Philosophy of Contemporary Thought and Culture, and in two weeks on The Internet, Dril came up as an example twice: the first example was of how one can use social media to cultivate a certain character, the second example was of how the internet has transformed our language (referring in particular to the Dril-ism “corncobbed”). But, you know: this is also a guy who tweets things like “BOSS TELLS ME I CAN KISS MY FERRETS AT WORK, BUT NO OPEN MOUTH. I PUNCH THE FLOOR SO HARD HIS SCREEN SAVER DEACTIVATES”. Where are my braying mobs of broadsheet columnists who assume higher education ought necessarily be exactly like their studies at Oxford in the early 1980s? I reckon my career could do with the shot in the arm.
OK, well obviously I don’t actually want this, I hate and fear all forms of attention and only expose my work to the public at all to support my dangerous addiction to food and shelter. So why am I really drawing this analogy? Well, our culture, in case you haven’t noticed, is really stupid. But the thing about stupid things is, it is these things that especially demand our understanding. Things that make some sort of transparent, rational sense don’t really demand that we do anything with them: the stupid demands we take it by the scruff of the neck, and sort it out. People who think that higher education should be all about the learned contemplation of worthy, serious things are therefore, in my view, very obviously wrong. Real wisdom needs to get its start crying addled in the dirt.
Dril, incidentally, is a writer who is almost uncannily brilliant at matching the present stupidity and mining it for insight. When the internet was still young, people liked to use “surfing” as the verb to describe what people did on it. But nowadays, what we experience on the internet just washes over us like a wave, drowning any possibility of understanding out.
“A woman might join a website to look at pictures of her nephew,” Patricia Lockwood marvels in her brilliant lecture The Communal Mind, “and five years later believe in flat earth.” Dril is one of those few individuals, the Extremely but Virtuously Online, who are able somehow to ride the great waves of information the internet exposes us to, surfing merrily somewhere close to the stars. But theirs is a wisdom most lack the strength for. Most people who have absorbed what Dril has done have not become great artists, they have become Q chuds or 5G truthers or gotten extremely divorced while spending their whole lives harassing trans teens.
This prompts another question I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently: how should philosophers teach the internet? Typically, the question of “how” someone ought to teach a subject, as a philosopher at a university, boils down to two broad things: your own personal style, and how you’ve seen people teach it before.
But philosophical debates move slowly, and many are still effectively set in a pre-online world: certainly it isn’t normal to see a module called “The Internet” on a philosophy syllabus quite yet. This is despite the fact that in practice, the internet is in many ways an ideal arena for philosophical instruction: teaching it can help students learn to reflect directly on their own experience (since naturally the internet dominates it—especially in our COVID-19 world where almost all their teaching is online). It also helps flag up a lot of the “IRL” work philosophers can do, since many internet-based (or internet-era) concepts – see for instance ‘post-truth’ – are absolutely crying out for a philosopher to come along and give everyone else some clue as to what they really mean.
All of this, however, is made trickier by a certain “fog of war” effect specific to the internet: the internet shapes our world, and the internet connects us to the world, but it also often makes us feel as if we lack any sort of genuinely shared world. We never quite know how exactly other people are experiencing the internet, especially if they’re from a different generation—Danah Boyd captured some of this with the concept of context collapse. It’s hard enough teaching a philosophy class when you’re trying to come up with examples drawn from the empirical world right in front of you: chairs and tables and suchlike. With the internet, it’s hard to get any real clear sense of what anyone has been exposed to, and so it can feel as if you’re shouting at your students across a void.
These sentiments are echoed by Josh Habgood-Coote, a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Bristol, who designed and led a third-year module on the social epistemology of the internet last year. When I was reflecting on my experience teaching the internet for this piece, I had a conversation with Josh via Zoom, and it was striking just how much our experiences converged.
Here at any rate are three broad lessons I think it’s worth internalizing in case anyone else is planning on teaching classes like this.
1. Teenagers are not necessarily as online as you’d expect.
Given my students are for the most part around 18-20, I would have assumed they’d be spending their whole lives on areas of the internet I’d never even heard of, routinely staying up until 4am every night producing dank fancams of South Korean pop bands whose fans are powerful and organised enough to bring down most nation states. But this turned out not to be the case at all. Obviously contemporary teenagers—as human beings alive in the year of our lord 2020—use the internet all the time. But philosophy students, at least, seem to stick to the online shallows: for the most part, they haven’t gone off the deep end yet.
“I was surprised by the ways in which my students were online,” says Habgood-Coote. “I assumed they would be using TikTok and Snapchat, things like that, but actually they were mostly using Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. They didn’t know Twitter culture at all.” (I also found this, that my students if they had Twitter would profess to “never really using it”).
“Oh, you need to talk to our younger siblings,” Habgood-Coote says that his students replied when he pressed them on this. “They’re the ones who are using the internet in this new, weird way.” But given that many of these younger siblings will now be starting university themselves (and thus be the same age as my first-years), I’m not sure that there isn’t just this sort of universal tendency to attribute wilder and stranger online experiences to people younger than oneself, based on a few scattered examples of ones you know who are Extremely Online, when in fact most people use things like social media in basically quite “normie” ways, that is: largely as a supplement for IRL sociality. Interestingly, one of the mature students in my class offered the most vital insights about how the internet has changed the way we interact with each other - precisely because she remembered a world so pre-online, it was relatively common to have to leave the house to use the phone.
One thing Habgood-Coote was struck by when teaching his course, however, was how carefully his students seemed to curate their online personas—especially compared to when he was an undergraduate and everyone would dump about five hundred photos on Facebook that they’d tag all their friends in after every night out. His students typically reported possessing both a standard and a “fake” Instagram profile (a “Finsta”). Everything on the public-facing profile would look very sleek and professional and aspirational, whereas the Finsta (no real names, only about 20 or 30 friends) would be used for sharing weird memes, more emotional content, or less flattering pictures of one’s night out. In part, students then might be keen to seem less online than they actually are, because they realize how much their image is constituted through social media – thus how careful they need to be with how they present themselves online.
2. It’s hard to talk about memes.
At points on my course, when I was talking about Dril, or even giving examples of memes such as the Distracted Boyfriend template (which to me is one of the most famous images in the world, but which my students seemed barely able to recognize), I felt a bit like Homer Simpson in that bit when he’s talking to his kids about Grand Funk Railroad, incredulous that they know nothing about “the competent drum work of Don Brewer.” When we discussed the concept of “corncobbing”, none of my students knew it was a word—although they did in fairness recognize the phenomenon it’s describing (I quickly realized that when the original Dril tweet was posted, most of them would have been around ten).
Of course, it may simply be that students find it difficult to talk about memes in a class, because trying to teach a meme is a bit like when corporate accounts start posting it. It kills it. But there could also be something deeper going on here. One thing Habgood-Coote suggested was that since, as teachers, we’re so much older, we’ve had a lot more time to accumulate online lore: it can be tempting to conceive of the internet as a sort of higher information one has beamed into one’s head, but really, our knowledge of it gets built up over time just like any other aspect of the world. Moreover, as millennials (we’re both in our early 30s), we are perhaps uniquely reflective about the internet since we remember a time before its hegemony was less-than total, we remember the evolution of social media, and an 18 year-old nowadays will have no memories of a world in which Facebook was anything other than dominant.
As I noted above: on the internet it can be hard to know what anyone else has actually experienced online. For Habgood-Coote, however, the way his course was structured ended up providing something like a solution to this problem. From the start, he says that his attitude was: “I can’t tell you what your forms of online sociality are.” So he designed a course that, rather than being prescriptive, was focused on giving students the philosophical tools to help them identify problems with how the internet currently works, then giving group presentations in which they proposed potential solutions. “Those worked out really cool, because students proposed a bunch of different things, like online IDs, or how to make dating apps less racist."
3. Philosophy should be more online, but that doesn’t mean philosophers should be.
Philosophical debates, as I’ve said, often lag behind internet culture – despite the fact that the internet now structures our interactions with one another arguably even more than IRL spaces do (certainly in 2020, and at least some of the changes this year has brought are likely to be permanent). And this is a bad thing, because it means that we, as philosophers, are less equipped to understand our world.
Habgood-Coote agrees. He highlights “centrist dad” as an example of a concept which has emerged from social media, that he—using Twitter—experienced the emergence of in real time, which describes an aspect of social reality in a way that is important for the area of philosophy he works in: critical social epistemology (the term is now philosophical canon, thanks to its inclusion in a paper he wrote about Fake News).
But doing philosophy of and through the internet doesn’t mean you need to get sucked completely in. Doing philosophy as someone who is Far Too Online can of course blind you to the object most people see when you talk about “the internet”. it can also (as in the case of some philosophers who will for the purposes of this article remain nameless) give you Extreme Online Brain Poisoning and mean you end up dedicating your philosophical career to a sort of self-pitying hate campaign against a specific marginalized group.
Habgood-Coote wonders if there is “an ideal, or a form of character,” that can help philosophers (or anyone) understand how to optimally navigate online space. “I can see people who are extremely online, for whom it’s useful and interesting and who are doing philosophy they wouldn’t be otherwise. Someone like Liam Bright—a lot of what he’s doing is taking the piss, but he also gets people interested in really cool weird stuff like Logical Bayesianism… It’s good to have some philosophers like this, but that doesn’t mean everyone should do it, attempting to maintain this sort of persona is often far too demanding.” As philosophers then, we can’t all be extremely online. But some of us are going to have to take one for the team.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer. His regular column for Logically addresses the news and how to live with it.